“Muslim feminists just want to throw out all Islamic scholarship because it’s male-dominated!”
Such is the rallying war cry of those who wish to dismiss any and all questioning and critique from those who wish to engage with Islamic scholarship in a more critical manner.
First of all, it should be acknowledged that there are some individuals or groups which would in fact like to destroy Islam completely and claim that its scholarship is completely corrupt.
Nevertheless, one should never make the dangerous assumption that all (or any) Muslims – feminist or not – who wish to take a closer look at our history and its scholars are automatically of some certain bent or agenda. In fact, to do so is a direct violation of the Islamic principle husn al-ẓann – to assume a positive intention on the part of another Muslim. Unfortunately, it’s far more common for some Muslims to have sû’ al-ẓann – negative suspicions – towards any believer who does not conform to their own personal ‘Islamic’ philosophy.
When it comes to discussing gender bias in Islamic scholarship, anyone who expresses an interest in examining our history from a less than romanticized perspective is demonized as being some kind of ‘Western secular liberal’ tool or being corrupted by such mentalities… rather than being seen as having sincere intentions to improve the Ummah by pointing out and changing harmful phenomena that continue to have disturbing consequences on our communities at large.
Islamic scholarship has existed from the time of RasûlAllâh ﷺ until today. In its earliest days, men and women alike had almost equal access to the source of religious evidence – RasûlAllâh ﷺ himself. In many cases, women had a unique position of access to him due to their being married to him, related to him, or being close to his wives
These women would not only teach each other, but teach men as well, in matters related to “women’s issues” and otherwise. Such examples of female scholars included ʿÂishah, Ḥafṣah, Umm Salamah, Fâṭimah bint Qays, ʿAmrah bint ʿAbd Al-Raḥmân, and Umm Al-Dardâ’ Al-Sughra. They were not only narrators of ḥadîth, but engaged in the active process of formulating legal rulings and addressing contemporary issues in their lifetimes.
As the modern scholar Shaykh Muhammad Akram Nadwi discussed in both his class on the History of Islamic Female Scholarship, and his book Al-Muḥaddithât, female scholarship after the 2nd century AH declined significantly after this era, particularly in fields outside that of ḥadîth. While Muḥaddithât (female scholars of ḥadith) continued to exist –and, in certain time periods (such as the 6th-9th centuries AH) flourished– female scholarship in other fields of the Islamic sciences faded away dramatically.
Of those women who were in fact specialized in fiqh and other areas, many of them were muḥaddithât as well, or began in the field of ḥadîth before exploring other areas of interest. Unfortunately, those women were viewed as anomalies not only of their time, but throughout Islamic history as a whole – they were the exception, not the rule.
While names such as Imam Bukhâri, Imam Abû Ḥanîfah, Shaykh Al-Islâm Ibn Taymiyyah, and so many others, are so familiar to us that we don’t even think twice to accept their conclusions, most of us would not even recognize the names of Umm Al-Dardâ’ Al-Sughra, ʿÂishah bint >alḥa ibn ʿUbaydillah, Fâtimah Al-Samarqandiyyah, or Fâṭimah bint Saʿd.
The reasons behind this decline in female scholarship are in many ways very predictable. Whereas in the time of RasûlAllâh ﷺ and his Companions, women were not barred from access to knowledge, from interacting with the society at large, or from being actively engaged with the spiritual and political affairs of their time (which often included traveling), Muslims of the centuries immediately afterwards did not continue this tradition of fostering female involvement.
Rather than going out of their way to facilitate opportunities for women to study, travel, and engage, there was societal pressure to keep women within the confines of domesticity. Such influences permitted their access to knowledge only to a certain extent.
Of the female scholars in later Islamic eras, a common factor is that the men in their lives (fathers, brothers, husbands) did go out of their way and inconvenience themselves in order to support and encourage these women. Fâṭimah bint Saʿd’s father ensured, from the time of her infancy, that she would be taken to circles of knowledge; later on, her husband sponsored her travels to Syria and Egypt. The same was true of Fâṭimah Al-Samarqandiyyah, and Fâṭimah bint ʿAbbâs Al-Baghdâdiyyah, who was a contemporary of Shaykh Al-Islâm Ibn Taymiyyah.
As for the majority of women, however, they did not have the same opportunities provided to even the poorest and disadvantaged of their male equals. Rather, the chauvinistic attitudes of Jâhiliyya (including but not limited to the influence of the Greek philosophers) –and not the Sunnah of encouraging female contribution– were the norm in the Muslim Ummah for hundreds of years.
To be continued, inshâ’Allah…